Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Roy Halladay, RIP: A Fatal Dream

By Jeff Kallman

"I have dreamed about owning a A5 since I retired!" Roy Halladay exclaimed on his Twitter account, after purchasing the Icon single-engine, two-seat monoplane in October. "Real life is better then my dreams!!" How could the former pitching great know bettering his dream would end up taking his life at 40?

The only man in baseball history to pitch two no-hitters in a season in which one was a perfect game, Halladay pitched like he had baseball in his blood. It turned out he had flying in it, too, being the son of a corporate pilot. And it was the latter that killed him November 7 in the Gulf of Mexico, when his dream plane went down and took him with it.

The Pasco Country, Florida sheriff's office said his body was found near the plane. The investigation into the crash has long since begun. This is the third time an A5 has crashed; the first, Toronto Star reporter Rick Westhead revealed by way of the National Transportation Safety Board, involved the plane's lead test pilot.

And it was a tragic end for a too-young man who became only baseball's second to pitch a postseason no-hitter, whose career ended too soon thanks to shoulder issues, and who loved to fly as much as he loved staring down hitters and busting sinkers and cutters through or past them.

"Many know Roy as a Cy Young pitcher, a future Hall of Famer," said Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco. "We know Roy as a person. As a caring husband who lived his wife Brandy. Who loved his two boys tremendously. He coached our baseball teams."

Baseball is no stranger to aviation tragedies. Ken Hubbs, the Cubs second baseman who was the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1962, died when his private plane crashed over Utah before the 1964 season. The irony: Hubbs took up flying to conquer his fear of it and learned to feel at peace in the air.

Roberto Clemente wasn't a pilot, but the Hall of Fame right fielder died in the crash of an ancient Douglas DC-7 he'd commissioned to bring supplies for relief to earthquake-hammered Managua, Nicaragua. Current major leaguer Neil Walker is the son of a Clemente teammate who helped him load the fatal flight but who was told by Clemente not to take the flight with him.

Yankee catcher Thurman Munson was a two-time World Series champion when his Cessna jet crashed at an Ohio airport while he was practicing takeoffs and landings. A family man who'd grown up the son of an abusive father and who scuffled to make sense of New York's sports heat, Munson bought the plane so he could fly home to his family on homestands.

Marv Goodwin (Reds pitcher, 1925), Charlie Peete (Cardinals catcher, 1956), Tom Gastall (Orioles catcher, 1956), Nestor Chavez (Giants pitcher, 1967), and two Yankee pitchers, Jim Hardin (1991) and Cory Lidle (2006) also died in plane crashes. Lidle was a teammate of Halladay's in Toronto and Philadelphia before he joined the Yankees.

One major leaguer was shot down and killed piloting a B-26 in World War II. Elmer Gedeon, a former and extremely short-lived Washington Senators outfielder, went down in 1944 while flying a mission to bomb a V-1 buzz-bomb factory near Saint Omer. The plane was hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire and Gedeon plus five of his crew died despite being able to parachute out of the stricken plane.

Halladay retired after two seasons worth of shoulder issues reduced him to less than the pitcher who won one Cy Young Award each with the Blue Jays and the Phillies, who threw a perfect game at the Marlins in May 2010, and who threw a no-hitter at the Reds to open the 2010 National League division series.

"You work hard for certain things," said Larsen, after Halladay's NLDS no-hitter. "I guess if you work hard enough good things are going to happen to you and it did for me and Halladay. You have to appreciate these things because you never know what's going to happen in the future."

"He was one of the best competitors who ever played this game and taught everyone around him to prepare the right way in order to be the best," said then-Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels when Halladay retired after the 2013 season. "For me, personally, he helped me understand the game more and gave me insight on how to become a top of the line starting pitcher."

Exponentially competitive on the mound, Halladay's remembered by numerous former teammates and supervisors as one of the quietest but kindest and gentlest of men off it.

So much so that, when he once texted then-Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. an apology for letting him down, in a 2010 NLCS game in which he was hit for a pair of home runs, Amaro remembers thinking and telling him, "Don't you realize who you are and what you've done and how grateful I am? I should be apologizing to you for us not rallying around you."

Halladay was also a man who cared about children including his own. As a Blue Jay, he created "Doc's Box for Kids," named for his nickname, which brought children at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children to Rogers Centre to watch Blue Jays games from a private, child-friendly sky box.

He had no qualms about retiring. He threw himself into family life with his wife and two sons, becoming the pitching coach for son Braden's high school team at Calvary Christian. And he indulged his passion for flying, earning his pilot's license not long after he left baseball.

Halladay had one critic when he bought the A5 — his wife, Brandy. "I didn't grow up with airplanes, or a comfort level like he did in small airplanes," she said, in a video Icon itself posted after Halladay bought the plane. "I fought hard. I was very against it."

"She's fought me all the way," Halladay said. Which didn't stop her from flying with her husband aboard the striking-looking plane.

Not long after he acquired the A5, Halladay tweeted, "I keep telling my dad flying the Icon A5 low over the water is like flying a fighter jet! His response ... I am flying a fighter jet!!" An amphibious monoplane with a top-mounted wing and a rear-mounted engine including a triple-blade push propeller behind the wing, the A5 was involved in two fatal crashes prior to Halladay's. Both were ruled pilot error.

"If you really put the hammer down, the A5 can get up to about 90 knots. It is not meant to go far, fast, or carry much load. If that's what you need, Icon will happily give you the number for your local Cirrus dealer — or Southwest Airlines," wrote AVweb's Geoff Rapoport.

"The A5 was designed for fun — and to qualify as a light-sport aircraft, which it barely did by getting a waiver to increase its maximum takeoff weight. There are other new airplanes designed principally for fun, mostly other light sports, but in comparison to the A5, they sometimes feel like really nice kitplanes."

"What do clouds feel like?" Halladay tweeted after acquiring the A5 and shooting video from his cockpit. "I didn't know either until I got my new Icon A5! I'm getting bruises on my arms from constantly pinching myself!"

Those who fly often believe — as I once said, on a military hop home, when the crew of a Navy P-3 aboard which I flew invited me to ride in the cockpit so long as I was willing to bring the pilot coffee on demand — that, when they look in front of them over the top such creamy cloud expanses, it's as if you could reach out and hold the hand of God Himself.

May Halladay's homecoming be more peaceful than his departure to it, and may his family take comfort in due course in knowing that their grief is great, but that their husband and father, who loved them dearly, died doing something he loved, a luxury comparatively few of us will get to say.

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